Each of Hannah Anderson’s books is more beautiful than the last (and I say this as a bit of a fan girl who has read each of her books at least once). She has a gift for seeing clearly and for articulating what she sees in language both beautiful and incisive at once. Many of her books pair this clear sight with illustrations of the natural world, which I love: the illustrations make the books themselves things of beauty—works of art to be savored and lingered over.
Not dry and academic, these books. But not flowery or theologically soft, either.
Heaven and Nature is Hannah Anderson’s work at its best. This is a collection of essays intended for Advent reading—for you, perhaps, or for older children or teens. In each essay Anderson weaves personal stories with Scripture, exploration of the natural world with illustrations by her husband, Nathan Anderson. This is a very humble, inviting Advent book: not full of crafts you won’t get to or lengthy readings you won’t finish. These essays feel like a gift in themselves, an invitation to pause and consider and prepare for the celebration of Christmas. Heaven and Nature Sing is beautiful inside and out.
This was a year of learning. Good portions of it were given to reading curriculum samples, blog posts, and books about homeschooling. But I also learned to tend flowers, to keep a nature journal, and I took to writing fiction.
Here is what you should know about me and writing fiction: in college, I played it safe and studied poetry and creative nonfiction*. I am glad I did, because creative nonfiction is what I do these days, both for this blog and for Deeply Rooted. Nonfiction seemed civilized: one could draw on one’s own life, one’s own actual experiences. Fiction seemed too much like the Wild West to me: people went there and died of starvation, or in a bar fight. There was too little structure, I thought, too few rules. No civilized folk to protest, “But it didn’t happen like that!” No sheriff.
But my last quarter of college, I needed to pad my schedule with a few extra classes, so along with Martial Arts 101, I took a fiction writing class. It was wild and a little terrifying at times. But I loved it. The air was clear and invigorating, the grueling travel to a story’s end worth the work.
And then I graduated.
Fifteen years later, I am trying out fiction again. I thought, maybe there’s no sheriff, but there are certainly good, established neighbors around who can teach me a thing or two about survival. I met a few of them this year through some essays on writing, and I read some stunning novels, truly beautiful books. I am now at work drafting some of those mediocre stories you have to write before you get to (here’s hoping) the good ones.
What I am getting at here is: I read a lot of fiction this year and a lot of books about writing it. I read a lot about the other things I’m learning to do, too. And in doing so I found some incredible books, at least fifty-percent of which I’ll read again (at least once). What a year!
* I’m sure some could argue that there’s nothing particularly safe about either poetry or creative nonfiction, or that writing about your own life is infinitely more alarming that inventing lives to write about, but at nineteen, I preferred the known to the unknown. I knew my own life tolerably well, and I had written a lot of middling poetry and song lyrics. And so those genres seemed safest to me.
I started this book when Josie was small. I wanted a big novel, so I got a big novel, and I began to read. But—alas!—I grew painfully bored after a few chapters and, being sleep-deprived, found myself dozing off during passages that were probably important. I shelved Middlemarch with a sigh and thought, Not right now. But this summer I picked it up again, grew bored in the early chapters, dozed off during some important passages, and found myself wanting to quit around the same spot where I had dropped off before, but I pressed on, and I am so glad.
This book is beautiful, stunning, breathtaking—any number of adjectives apply to its slow development of character, perfect pacing, and fitting conclusion. A few chapters from the end I began to realize that Middlemarch would join the ranks of my favorite novels. By the end I wondered if it hadn’t topped the list.
I took Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl with me on vacation last summer and proceeded to underline and dog ear it heavily—every other passage, it seems, is brilliant and brightly written. Wilson’s thoughts on this world, the wildness of it, were just right for reading on a cabin’s front porch overlooking a lake.
We had a neighbor who kept the best-curated Little Free Library around. After a summer of supplying me with Wendell Berry, Flannery O’Connor and more (and I, in turn, kept it stocked P. G. Wodehouse, E. B. White and more), they moved and I mourned. Now it houses the usual department store crime novels and cast-off magazines (alas!).
But before they moved, I found this gem: I knew nothing about the author, only that it was about writing novels, and so I grabbed it. Margot Livesey looks at how writers learn from great writers by reading their stories; she discusses Shakespeare and Flaubert in glorious detail. This is one of my best free library finds to date.
Aimee Byrd’s vision of women in the church is a challenging and uncomfortably convicting one. She both points church leaders to Scripture passages that press us to revisit some of the habits we’ve settled into within the church, and she encourages women to be knowledgeable about Scripture and quick to spot false doctrine.
One of my favorite features of the book was a chapter in which Byrd quotes passages from well-known books marketed toward Christian women and trains readers to ask pointed questions of the text. I’m sure she’ll offend every reader at least once, but in a good way, a way that means she’s prodding at something that needs examination. It is worth noting, though, that she doesn’t do this just to rile people up: her arguments are firmly rooted in Scripture, and her concern is loving, if direct. This book gave me much to ponder.
I read and adored Goudge’s Eliot Family Trilogy last year, but this book was even better. Imagine an L. M. Montgomery novel set in the English countryside, with an protagonist not in the dawn of life but in its twilight, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s to love about The Scent of Water. I already look forward to rereading it.
In this graceful little book about humility, Hannah Anderson explores why it matters that we know our place as branches to Christ’s vine. She draws on stories from her community in rural Appalachia, and writes of plants and the rhythm of the garden in a way that reminds me of Lilias Trotter’s Parables from the Cross. I loved the way she framed the wisdom of this book within stories and linked it to the outside world.
When I realized that I wanted to teach the girls to keep nature journals, I also realized that I needed to keep one myself—the habit wouldn’t take if I didn’t. So I made myself a little bag of supplies, dug a tiny sketchbook out of my desk, and checked this book out from the library. In it, John Muir Laws explains the concepts behind keeping a nature journal, but he also discusses drawing and painting techniques, explores a number of different mediums, and quietly cracks jokes as he goes.
This quickly became a favorite book, not just because I was new to nature journaling and it was helpful, but because Laws describes certain concepts so clearly that my art skills leveled up more in the few months I spent with this book than they had in the previous ten years. He’s a master at explaining complex techniques in a few short sentences, and the step-by-step drawings throughout this book are worth their weight in gold.
Flannery O’Connor is adept at describing her own work and the work of a writer in a way that cuts to the heart of things. This won’t surprise you, if you’re familiar with her stories. She does cut right to the heart of things. But for a writer trying to write stories that aren’t entirely aimless or bland, O’Connor is a sharp-tongued, discerning, articulate teacher. I am still reading these essays and have been reading them slowly for months, but I feel confident ranking them here because I’ve yet to find one that didn’t send me to my notebook with some new thought to ponder.
Du Maurier’s eerie novel about a young wife haunted by her husband’s deceased first wife is perfect from start to finish. Du Maurier’s eye for detail brings a scene to life with the mention of one fallen moth, one forgotten corkscrew. And the twists and turns of the plot! Egad! This book, too, has joined my list of frequently revisited favorites. (I wasn’t able to photograph this one because I promptly pressed it upon a friend.)
This book is the reason we skipped squash this summer and planted row upon row of flowers. Benzakein runs Floret Farm, a small flower farm not far from where we live, where she grows and arranges gorgeous blooms. In this book, she gives tips on planting, tending, and harvesting her favorites, as well as some ideas for arranging the harvested flowers. Cut Flower Garden was a glorious spring read.
Some years February is mopey and melancholic. It mists the back of my neck with gray rain, and the clouds seem so low, so immovable that I’m tempted to reach up and try to touch them. But this year, I detected a decided tone of mockery in February’s weather: it snowed, and then the snow turned to gray slush and then it went away. The sun came out for a week or so then, warm enough for walking and wondering at crocuses and snowdrops and feeling hopeful about life in general.
And then the snow came back.
It was white and fluffy snow, the kind of snow we’re glad to see in November. But I caught myself shaking my fist at it and wanting to retreat into some inner part of me that remembered crocuses and snowdrops and the promising first shoots of daffodils. Instead, I dug out the picture books.
Normally, I like to fill the weeks of Lent with posts about beautiful Easter books. But this year I decided to start with a list of books about spring, when the whole earth (well, this hemisphere of it) resurrects, and new life buds and blooms in every corner.
You can find a list of my favorite traditional Easter stories here, and I’ll post more in the weeks to come. But today, we’re doing something a little different, something that looks at the new life promised in those crocuses and birds’ eggs.
These are books—many of them poetry—that make you want to go outside and wonder at the world contained within a droplet of water. They are books that till the soil within us so we are ready to consider the breaking up, sowing, and bursting forth that is Easter.
This sweet book echoes exactly my impatience right now. “First you have brown, all around you have brown . . . “. But Then It’s Spring reads like a poem—but a charming poem, not a chanty one. And Erin Stead illustrates it with all the warmth and beauty ofA Sick Day for Amos McGee (one of our favorites).
This “First Book of Nature” is full of poems that span the entire year, but we’ve been reading through the spring section for now, savoring Davies’ meditations on cherry blossoms and birds’ nests. The book is big, with gorgeous collage illustrations, bright colors, and text that celebrates the small beauties around us.
It is good to remember where all those plants begin, and wonderful to consider that they all spring from the ones spoken into being by God. Norman Messenger’s illustrations are filled with detail and life and do this first story justice. (Read the full review.)
These short poems are not only about spring, but they rest briefly on many spring-related topics, like flowers and small creatures and rain . Worth’s poems are a delight to read together, and remind us of the wonder tucked into some of the most ordinary aspects of our lives. (Read the full review.)
A Seed is Sleepy is one of a series of books on interesting aspects of nature. Sylvia Long’s illustrations are richly detailed and show the beauty and variety of the seeds that house strange flowers and plants from all around the world. This book is a beautiful reminder that though they don’t seem to be doing much right now, there are sleepy seeds laboring all around us right now.
These poems aren’t only about spring either—in fact, they go through a year’s worth of flowers—but spring means flowers and poetry to me, and these are the best flower poems I know. Cicely Mary Barker assigns each flower a corresponding fairy, then writes about that fairy’s quirks and temperament in a way that makes the poems easy to memorize and the flowers easy to recognize in the wild. Some of the newer collections of Flower Fairies add gimmicks like stories and crafts, but this one is just the poems, arranged by season, and Barker’s classic illustrations.
Lydia and I are reading this one together right now, and the image of those little green shoots peeping through the tangle of forgotten rose vines is enough to make my spring-hungry heart happy. A beautiful classic, and one that deserves its own post here on the blog.
Okay, so this book isn’t only about spring either, but it does fit spring within its context and I love that. John Updike wrote a poem for every month of the year, and Trina Schart Hyman’s illustrations follow one family through all four seasons, poem by poem. It’s a wonderful book, and the poem “April” contains one of my favorite lines about spring anywhere: “The blushing, girlish world unfolds.” If that doesn’t describe spring, what does?
Once at a Young Author’s Conference, I heard Ruth Heller speak about illustrating children’s books. I liked her then, but I love her now—her detailed drawings and unexpected rhymes are just what subjects like grammar and botany need.
L. M. Montgomery’s books are worth reading at any time of the year. But there’s something about spring that makes me want to read and re-read her work, preferably on the front porch, where I can smell freshly tilled garden plots and see as many flowers as possible. (Read more about L. M. Montgomery.)
Imagine that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle had been written by Elisabeth Elliot, and you’ll have some idea what to expect from this book. But even so Humble Roots will probably surprise you. Hannah Anderson mediates on the topic of humility, weaving in stories from her life in rural Virginia as well as a vignette about a different flower or plant for each chapter. This is already one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Have you had a chance to check out the new Book List? You can find it here, or you can learn more about it in this post.
Hi, I'm Théa! I review classic literature, poetry, nonfiction, fantasy, picture books—children's books luminous with grace and beauty. These are books our family loved and that I think you'll love too. Thanks for stopping by!
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